Melinda Barnes Runk remembers that summer day in 2007 when a uniformed service member and a religious leader showed up at her house to tell her that her husband, an Apache helicopter pilot in the Utah National Guard, had died in a helicopter crash.
Chief Warrant Officer Clayton Barnes had served in Afghanistan from 2004 to 2005. On Aug. 20, 2007, Clayton and copilot, Chief Warrant Officer James Linder, had been on a training mission when their helicopter crashed near Lake Mountain in Utah, killing both men. It had been Clayton's final day of duty as a pilot before he would start dental school.
Barnes Runk also recalls a day more than four years after that event that was equally as devastating.
"Someone called and said there had been an audit. Two officers came to my door and said we had been paid, but we weren't really entitled to it," Barnes Runk said. She also received a letter, one that has been archived with 94 other similar letters at 95letters.com.
The Defense Department had mistakenly classified her husband as having died on active duty training status. Because he was conducting inactive duty training at the time, his family was eligible for a much lower benefit.
Barnes Runk and her family had grown dependent on the monthly installments of $1,480. The news devastated Barnes Runk, who in 2012 was raising four children ages 4 to 11 years old. At the time of Clayton's death, Barnes Runk had opted to have her husband's benefits directed to her children instead of herself because the $370 in monthly benefits each of the kids received would be cut if she remarried one day, since Clayton died while under inactive duty status.
The only upside, Barnes Runk learned, was that her family and the others would not have to pay back years of extra compensation because it was a Defense Department error, not theirs.
For the past five years, Barnes Runk has had to make due without the government assistance, which she said needs to be changed so there is no differentiation between military families or which pot of funding survivor benefits are paid out of.
"If you're going to risk your life in the same manner, your family should be taken care of in the same way," Barnes Runk said.
A provision to change the law was included in the fiscal 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, which the Senate approved Thursday, sending it to President Obama's desk to sign.
The change was championed by Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, who wanted the families of fallen reservists and National Guardsmen to be taken care of equally in the event of their death while in the line of duty.
Calls for change started in 2012, when a Defense Finance & Accounting Service audit concluded the affected survivor benefits program had overpaid 95 families.
But as the Defense Department would learn, Clayton Barnes' mistaken classification was not a rarity. One of 67 service members every year misclassified at the time of death, according to the Defense Department budget documents.
The NDAA provision would fix the 2003 law that initially made that distinction between active duty and inactive duty training, classifying Guardsmen and reservists as separate from other military branches. The Pentagon's accounting system was not updated in light of the legal changes made that year. These widows and widowers, who were supposed to receive small payments, if anything at all, were paid much more as a result of the accounting error.
From coast to coast, families of late service members were learning of a mistake that would also strip them of their benefits. Some would lose all of that money, while others who had elected the spouse as the benefactor, not the children, would receive just a portion of the original amount that families of active-duty members received.
Todd Ernst, an Air Force Reserve veteran who created the 95letters.com advocacy site, said the core issue is that reservists and Guardsmen are paid out of a pool of money separate from the one used for active-duty troops.
A spokesman from the Air Force for Manpower and Reserve Affairs Office at the Pentagon confirmed Ernst's statement.
"Every day, teams of active and reserve component airmen work together to accomplish the Air Force mission. If something should happen, causing an airman to make the ultimate sacrifice, that airman and his or her family should be properly cared for. The survivor benefits the airman's family receives should not depend on the duty status in which the airman was serving," said Gabe Camarillo, assistant secretary of the Air Force for manpower and reserve affairs.
Congress never intended to give service members different survivor benefits based on classification at the time of death, said Susan Lukas, director of military policy at the Reserve Officers Association.
"The matter comes down to the Pentagon still tends to pay the Guard and Reserve less when it comes to paying benefits," she said. "In many times, it's not even enough to help pay the mortgage."
Still, in the years since the audit, lawmakers have been knocked down in attempting to correct the error.
The NDAA also includes language that would allow the Pentagon to forgive service members' in California from having to pay back $50 million in reenlistment bonuses. All Barnes Runk wants is justice for her situation now, an issue that is much cheaper financially to fix than the California one.
"I look at the situation in California – it's very insulting," Melinda said. "I want the California people to get that money back … it's not just the money. It's the fact that they're not recognizing our loss. The money does make a difference, but to take it away like that is like saying his death wasn't as meaningful as other people who died serving their country."
The Pentagon suspended efforts to recoup the $50 million in re-enlistment bonuses to California Guardsmen. Lukas estimated a little more than $1 million would be enough to fix the "life-crushing" shortcoming of the Survivor Benefits program.
Chaffetz has pushed all year to get a provision addressing survivor benefits in this year's NDAA. The provision would give all Guardsmen and reservists on active status and inactive duty status the same financial benefits as other military branches, regardless of how they are classified. Senate rules insist in order to fix the problem, lawmakers must fund the past decade of shortages — $13 million in lost benefits.
"In the unfortunate event someone dies in the service of their country, the family of the fallen should be compensated the same whether that person was active duty military or a member of the Reserve on inactive duty training status. It's the least we can do for the men and women who put their lives on the line for our protection," Chaffetz said.